At the chalkface: A ballad of Peckham Rye

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Light falls like a blessing. We’re all passing through. I seem to be having a vision. I’m in good company. Didn’t Blake famously have visions in Peckham Rye? Didn’t he see angels somewhere here?

On an early morning in May I get on a train at Peckham Rye in south London. A fresh, blue sky hangs over the city. The light is clean and precise. It slants luminously across us. Our carriage can hardly contain it. The passengers are calm and hushed, as they plug in, tune out, read or just chill. A rich mix, I imagine them as pupils I may have taught, all grown up. We pass warehouses, Millwall’s Den, trees and blossoms and the sun shines staccato on us.

We are sometimes lost in light.

There’s a man in his 30s in a electric blue suit, an Olivier Giroud haircut, trim beard and brogues. He’s reading the Guardian about the Liverpool game and the Windrush scandal.

A neat young woman in hijab and dress is listening to headphones and reading Lullaby by Leila Slimani, simultaneously. Multi-tasking. These millennials, eh? Two schoolboys next to her press mobiles obsessively.

The light still floods our carriage.

A woman with a pixie face, a bob cut, cherry lipstick and some judicious tattoos wears a cool black jacket, Adidas pants and leopard skin flats and nods gently to the wasp in her headphones.

It reminds me of my class at registration.

A Muslim woman with a wide, red skirt and black trainers reads Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. A man with cornrows sits blissfully meditating. Two men in orange hi-vis togs are speaking Lithuanian. An old woman, her eyes grey with fatigue, worries with her beads. A smart woman has wet hair and is putting on mascara and pouting down some lipstick. This is alright. A cool vibe.

I would like to think that London schools have somehow contributed to it. The light becomes intermittent.

This works. This city works. Its schools work. Its teachers work. It’s wonderful.

Look, I know the malign chorus of old, craven, monocultural voices with their dog-whistle innuendos, white noise and blether about race, their middle England Question Time tropes, and their systemic, institutional racism.

Well, they’re on the wrong side of history. This carriage just cancels that stuff out.

On another day I might think of dark things, but on this bright early morning in May, just for a few moments, everything feels like it’s going to be alright.

Light falls like a blessing. We’re all passing through. I seem to be having a vision. I’m in good company. Didn’t Blake famously have visions in Peckham Rye? Didn’t he see angels somewhere here?

The train stops. I get out Canada Water. The vision fades and is gone. I smile at the woman in the hijab – and she smiles back.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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